Continuing sub-zero temperatures are fuelling blanket media speculation that the legendary 200 kilometre Dutch skating marathon the Elfstedentocht - Eleven Cities Tour - will take place for the first time in 15 years. A definitive decision will be taken on Wednesday evening by organisers as to whether there is enough ice.
Radio Netherlands Worldwide's John Tyler takes a personal look at the sporting event whose very prospect has the Dutch in a frenzy.
I want to skate the Eleven Cities Tour. This is a privilege reserved for members of the Eleven Cities Association for an iconic race held just 15 times in the last 100 years. While I am a member of the club, I do not have a starting number this year. I will have to watch from the sidelines.
That’s too bad, since I am an oddity on the frozen Dutch winterscape – and not only because I am an immigrant. Rather, because I want to skate the 200 kilometre race on my hockey skates.
Crown Prince on skates?
The Dutch media is full of speculation as to whether or not the legendary skating marathon will take place and who will take part. A sighting of Prince Willem Alexander's car in Friesland - the venue for the tour - led to a flurry of media activity. The Prince took part in the race in 1986 under a false name, so a royal car in the vicinity now is quickly translated into a host of rumours about a possible royal re-run.
“You’re nuts,” “you don’t know what you’re getting into,” and “why are you taking the place of a real skater?” are some of the responses I get when I tell Dutch people of my plans. You see, most people who skate such long distances do so on speed skates, which have a longer blade and therefore give more power per stride. So, could they be right? Am I mad?
Two hundred kilometres is a long way. You can go your own pace, but you do have to finish the tour by midnight. I have no idea if I would be able to make it on my hockey skates with their short blades.
I don’t have much experience skating longer tours, but I have played hockey most of my life. I learned to skate before I could walk, on ponds and a small rink my father and brother and I built every winter in our backyard in northern New York state. I played competitive hockey until I was 18 years old and have played recreationally off-and-on since then.
Rob Serviss of the Eindhoven Hockey Lab calculates that a hockey player skates about five kilometres per game. So during all the hockey games I’ve played, I’ve skated about 2,000 kilometres. If you add practices and lots of skating on ponds and canals where I grew up, I have probably skated 5,000 km in my life.
On the other hand, every last Dutch man, woman and child considers himself an expert. On what basis? This country has just 22 skating rinks with artificial ice. (There are more than 200 rinks in three states in the north east of the US near where I grew up, with half the population of the Netherlands.) Winters here in Holland are mild, and skating on natural ice is only possible for a couple of weeks during a cold winter. Many winters aren’t even cold enough for that. So all those supposed experts are, for the most part, skating on thin ice.
Just going forward
Certainly, ice skating is part of the Dutch cultural heritage. And there is nothing compared to the hype surrounding the Eleven Cities Tour. Every year, when the thermometer drops below zero degrees Celsius, people start asking – can we hold the tour this year? The tour of tours?
The last time it was held was in 1997, just when I was learning about it from my Dutch girlfriend. We went to the Dutch embassy in Washington DC to watch coverage of the tour. I was sold. I became a member of the association when we moved to the Netherlands later that year and I’ve been waiting since then for my chance to take part.
I have resisted learning to skate on speed skates. I am more comfortable when I can stop, make sharp turns, go backwards – everything a hockey-player needs. Speed-skaters, on the other hand, do just one thing very well – they go forward.
Watching the two of us skating together is comical. For every push he makes, I need to make two. I’m like a donkey next to a race horse. I’m used to playing a game with spurts of energy, short eruptions of speed, and then moments of rest. Whereas my friend skates with a fluid motion that he repeats over and over again forever.
But my long-distance technique is coming along. On a windy, snowy day last year I went out on the Gouwzee lake between Monnickendam, Marken and Volendam to see how I would do. I laced up my skates next to people with all kinds and versions of speed skates. After two-and-a-half hours my donkey legs were pretty tired. But they were also encouraged. I skated 50 kilometres, one quarter of the distance for the big tour. On my good-old hockey skates.
But that was last year, when I actually had a starting number for the Eleven Cities Tour. I only get a starting number every other year. So even if the race is held next week, I will have to be content to watch and wait. I hope it doesn’t take another 15 years to find out if I can finish.